by David D. Kirkpatrick
August 28, 2004
Three times a year for 23 years, a little-known club of a few hundred of the most powerful conservatives in the country have met behind closed doors at undisclosed locations for a confidential conference, the Council for National Policy, to strategize about how to turn the country to the right.
Details are closely guarded.
“The media should not know when or where we meet or who takes part in our programs, before of after a meeting,” a list of rules obtained by The New York Times advises the attendees.
The membership list is “strictly confidential.” Guests may attend “only with the unanimous approval of the executive committee.” In e-mail messages to one another, members are instructed not to refer to the organization by name, to protect against leaks.
This week, before the Republican convention, the members quietly convened in New York, holding their latest meeting almost in plain sight, at the Plaza Hotel, for what a participant called “a pep rally” to re-elect President Bush .
Mr. Bush addressed the group in fall 1999 to solicit support for his campaign, stirring a dispute when news of his speech leaked and Democrats demanded he release a tape recording. He did not.
Not long after the Iraq invasion, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld attended a council meeting.
This week, as the Bush campaign seeks to rally Christian conservative leaders to send Republican voters to the polls, several Bush administration and campaign officials were on hand, according to an agenda obtained by The New York Times.
“The destiny of our nation is on the shoulders of the conservative movement,” the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, told the gathering as he accepted its Thomas Jefferson award on Thursday, according to an attendee’s notes.
The secrecy that surrounds the meeting and attendees like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly and the head of the National Rifle Association, among others, makes it a subject of suspicion, at least in the minds of the few liberals aware of it.
“The real crux of this is that these are the genuine leaders of the Republican Party, but they certainly aren’t going to be visible on television next week,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said.
Mr. Lynn was referring to the list of moderate speakers like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York who are scheduled to speak at the convention.
“The C.N.P. members are not going to be visible next week,” he said. “But they are very much on the minds of George W. Bush and Karl Rove every week of the year, because these are the real powers in the party.”
A spokesman for the White House, Trent Duffy, said: “The American people are quite clear and know what the president’s agenda is. He talks about it every day in public forums, not to any secret group of conservatives or liberals. And he will be talking about his agenda on national television in less than a week.”
The administration and re-election effort were major focuses of the group’s meeting on Thursday and yesterday. Under Secretary of State John Bolton spoke about plans for Iran, a spokesman for the State Department said.
Likewise, a spokesman for Assistant Attorney General R. Alexander Acosta confirmed that Mr. Acosta had addressed efforts to stop “human trafficking,” a major issue among Christian conservatives.
Dr. Frist spoke about supporting Mr. Bush and limiting embryonic stem cell research, two attendees said. Dan Senor, who recently returned from Iraq after working as a spokesman for L. Paul Bremer III, the top American civilian administrator, was scheduled to provide an update on the situation there.
Among presentations on the elections, an adviser to Mr. Bush’s campaign, Ralph Reed, spoke on “The 2004 Elections: Who Will Win in November?,” attendees said.
The council was founded in 1981, just as the modern conservative movement began its ascendance. The Rev. Tim LaHaye, an early Christian conservative organizer and the best-selling author of the “Left Behind” novels about an apocalyptic Second Coming, was a founder. His partners included Paul Weyrich, another Christian conservative political organizer who also helped found the Heritage Foundation.
They said at the time that they were seeking to create a Christian conservative alternative to what they believed was the liberalism of the Council on Foreign Relations.
A statement of its mission distributed this week said the council’s purposes included “to acquaint our membership with those in positions of leadership in our nation in order that mutual respect be fostered” and “to encourage the exchange of information concerning the methodology of working within the system to promote the values and ends sought by individual members.”
Membership costs several thousand dollars a year, a participant said. Its executive director, Steve Baldwin, did not return a phone call.
Over the years, the council has become a staging ground for conservative efforts to make the Republican Party more socially conservative. Ms. Schlafly, who helped build a grass-roots network to fight for socially conservative positions in the party, is a longstanding member.
At times, the council has also seen the party as part of the problem. In 1998, Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family spoke at the council to argue that Republicans were taking conservatives for granted. He said he voted for a third-party candidate in 1996.
Opposition to same-sex marriage was a major conference theme. Although conservatives and Bush campaign officials have denied seeking to use state ballot initiatives that oppose same-sex marriage as a tool to bring out conservative voters, the agenda includes a speech on “Using Conservative Issues in Swing States,” said Phil Burress, leader of an initiative drive in Ohio, a battleground state.
The membership list this year was a who’s who of evangelical Protestant conservatives and their allies, including Dr. Dobson, Mr. Weyrich, Holland H. Coors of the beer dynasty; Wayne LaPierre of the National Riffle Association, Richard A. Viguerie of American Target Advertising, Mark Mix of the National Right to Work Committee and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform.
Not everyone present was a Bush supporter, however. This year, the council included speeches by Michael Badnarik of the Libertarian Party and Michael A. Peroutka of the ultraconservative Constitution Party. About a quarter of the members attended their speeches, an attendee said.
Nor was the gathering all business. On Wednesday, members had a dinner in the Rainbow Room, where William F. Buckley Jr. of the National Review was a special guest. At 10 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, members had “prayer sessions” in the Rose Room at the hotel.
— Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times.